The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) will hold its independence referendum on September 25th, 2017. The Kurdish push for self-determination is a natural right, a right which no nation can deny. The argument that Turks are allowed a Turkey, Arabs are allowed an Iraq and Syria (as well as twenty other states), and Iranians an Iran, yet Kurds cannot have an independent Kurdistan is illegitimate. What is legitimate is the KRG’s argument that Iraq failed to hold its end of the deal after the implementation of the 2005 Iraqi constitution. Baghdad denied Kurds their constitutional budget rights (17%) under former prime minister Nouri al Maliki, which forced Kurds to act independently. The Kurds do not require the approval of any nation in the region, or among the international community for that matter, to hold a referendum.
However, we must be practical. This referendum is not conducted by the Kurdistan Regional Government, it is clearly pushed solely by Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and a few individuals from Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). A KRG led referendum would indicate the approval from parliament, the “regions democratically elected legislator”, but parliament has not been in session for nearly 2 years. The KRG has also lobbied across the European Union (EU) and Washington to gain backing, but only succeeded in calling their local networks to attend such events without gaining any real official stance from legitimate governments. For those not aware of the tense political spat within the KRG since 2015 should read this.
The most substantial issue concerning the referendum is not the fact that Barzani is aiming to achieve his personal ambitions of creating a Kurdish state, or the KDP attempting to use the KRG name as a guise to fulfill false hope, it is that they have completely ignored Kurds in the process of creating a so called “Kurdistani” state. For as long as Kurds attend rallies and events held by the “KRG”, they are satisfied; this creates an illusion to those watching from the outside. The KDP and PUK have completely isolated those Kurds with real concerns both at home and abroad (Read this too). Additionally, the KDP has taken a dangerous ultra-nationalist approach, similar to Erdogan’s AK Party in Turkey, threatening to purge anyone standing in their way who oppose the move.
Events held by the KRG offices in the EU and Washington are paid by the money of the Kurdish people, yet the speakers are non-Kurdish, the audience are foreigners and Kurds who attend are in utter silence. Furthermore, Kurdish communities in Kurdistan are being ignored across Slemani, Halabja, Kirkuk, Hewler, Duhok, Zaxho etc. A referendum’s main goal, to unify the people of Kurdistan, is doing everything but that. The insistence on holding the vote on September 25th seems rushed, disorganized, and without any real bite, not just from outside powers but from Kurds as well.
Is there a clear strategy?
Since the referendum is illegal, non-binding and without parliament’s approval, what is the point? Without the vote of parliament “to debate the major issues of the day”, it will simply be an expensive survey. The Baghdad government is certainly awaiting for the right moment to pull this card.
Let us try to give the KDP the benefit of the doubt and ignore the Gorran Movement’s (Change Party’s) calling of reactivation of Parliament. So move ahead with the referendum, under Barzani’s call, but what follows? The people have voted above 80 percent for a state, now time for Barzani to deliver. When will Masoud Barzani declare statehood? Is this not important? Do we as Kurds not need to know immediately when we will get our state since the referendum is so important and rushed that it cannot be postponed? Why haven’t Kurds asked for the date of their state? Was this not the point of the referendum? Moreover, if the referendum achieves its goal and a date is set for declaring statehood, maybe a year or two out by rough approximations, why can’t we postpone the voting date? It is not as if Barzani will declare a state within weeks, so why are Kurds fearful of democracy and putting our institutions to work?
Maybe there is no clear strategy - the Barzani leadership could simply be “winging it”. It may be the referendum is just a hoax, forcing Baghdad into further concessions such as funds, territorial integrity over disputed territories, and so on. Barzani may postpone the referendum if he gets what he wants from Baghdad, but not for the reason it should be postponed: the Kurdish concern of reactivating parliament. He may also stick with the referendum date but nothing will come of the non-binding document, it will be his “referendum card” to pull at any moment he feels the pressure.
My proposal for the Kurdish referendum is clear - postpone it. My concerns are not with Baghdad, Tehran or Ankara, these cities belong to internationally recognized states and will do everything in their power to protect their interests, geography, resources, population etc. My concern is not about gaining international support, albeit helpful. I have always believed the United States and the EU must distance themselves from the “status quo” policy of keeping failed states intact and recognize an independent Kurdistan.
My concern lies within the borders of South Kurdistan. If we allow an individual like Barzani to single-handedly declare a state, despite his expired and therefore illegal term, then in a future state he or another Barzani can undoubtedly declare anything, anywhere, targeting anyone. This is the definition of dictatorship. Have we Kurds not learned our lesson? We must begin to trust our institutions such as the parliament, whether it is majority KDP, PUK or Gorran, it is composed of democratically elected officials. It is vital that we do not overlook parliament’s approval in the name of “Kurdistan” or nationalism. We all love our nation equally, those who are for or against the referendum, but we must think long term and not be blinded by the hype.
The first step is to postpone the referendum until parliament approves the call and sets a date. My proposal for the postponement date is clear, no referendum until Kurdistan attains a national united Peshmerga military force. This will prove that Kurdistan is not tribal, not divided among KDP/PUK military factions which is different than political rivalry, it will gain international support from the US and EU, Kurdistan will be able to defend itself without worrying about KDP alliances with Turkey and PUK with Iran, and will prove to the world Kurds will move towards statehood with or without permission. The sooner this is achieved, the sooner we as Kurds are ready to declare statehood.